Thursday, February 21, 2013

Oklahoma City Thunder 119 at Houston Rockets 122 - February 20, 2013

After spending the morning at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, I drove back to Houston to add another NBA arena to my total. It was cold and raining as I made my way along I-45 towards downtown, where the Toyota Center, home of the Rockets, is located.

Toyota Center

The Toyota Center was opened in 2003 to replace the aging Summit, which had hosted the Rockets since 1975. Negotiations for the new stadium had taken several years and there was a threat of the team moving, but ultimately an agreement was reached and construction started in 2001, taking just over two years to complete.

Located at the corner of Polk and La Branch streets in southeast downtown, the arena has a parking garage right next to it as well as several surface lots within a block or two that range from $10-30. However, if you can arrive around 5:30 for a 7 pm game, you should be able to find street parking. Meters are only enforced til 6 pm so a 50-cent deposit will get you a spot. I found one at the corner of Bell and Caroline without even looking, so do drive around if you are on a budget.

There is not much around the outside of the stadium, other than a sculpture dedicated to Hakeem Olajuwon  (above). However, once inside, the venue becomes very impressive indeed. The main entrance bring you onto the main concourse (below) without any stairs to reach the seating bowl, a request of Rockets' owner Leslie Alexander who didn't want fans to have to walk up stairs to reach their seats.

There's a lot to see on the main level, so take the time to walk around. The highlight here is the Rockets' historical timeline which provides a year-by-year recap of the events and players that have made Houston one of the top NBA teams over the past 30 years.

There are dozens of concessions with the BBQ Beef Brisket Sandwich from the Texas BBQ stand seeming to be the most popular despite going for $10.50. Don't forget to sign up for the designated driver program and get a free medium soda.

The seating bowl is quite nice and corner seats provide good sightlines to the floor.  A single escalator will take you up to the 400 level, where I prefer to sit (or where I can afford to sit). Although there are two club levels between the lower and upper levels, the top deck isn't that far away. I paid $69 for a 4th row seat and was quite happy with the view. Note the scoreboard in the photo below; it is the biggest indoor scoreboard in pro sports, similar to what the Cowboys have. It was installed for the beginning of this season and it simply unbelievable, with high definition video and stats updated in real time. You have to be careful not to watch the game on the screen as it is really captivating. I suggest getting the upper sideline seats for the best view.

There are banners in all four corners of the upper deck. Of course, the two world championship banners are the highlight, but the arena also includes retired numbers for the Rockets as well as banners for the Houston Aeros, who won the Avco Cup in the WHA back in 1974 and 1975. There's even a Gordie Howe #9 banner! Great to see this history preserved even though the league no longer exists. There is a Houston Aeros franchise in the AHL though, and I will be back to see them in a year or two.

The Sky Court is an interactive area for kids, with small exhibits to compare your wingspan to Yao Ming or your jumping ability.

The mascot is called Clutch, after "Clutch City" which is the nickname given to the Rockets when they won their first championship in 1994 and is now used by Houston as a whole. That's Clutch below surrounded by smoke, getting fans into the game, which turned out to be as fantastic as the venue.

The Game

Before the game, the Rockets pulled off a trade, getting 5th-overall pick Thomas Robinson and others from the Kings for Patrick Patterson, Cole Aldrich, and Toney Douglas, as well as sending Marcus Morris to Phoenix. This left them a bit shorthanded with just five men on their bench. It would be the first game back after the all-star break for both teams; the Thunder's previous game was the loss to Miami I witnessed last Thursday.

Houston got off to a fast start with 7 of their first 8 field goals coming from three-point land. They finished the first quarter 8/10 from long range with James Harden (below) getting 4 of those against his former team as the Rockets led 36-29 after one.

The second quarter was the opposite, as Houston lost their touch, going 1/8 from beyond the arc, allowing the Thunder to storm back and take a 62-57 lead.  Russell Westbrook (laying up below) led the way for OKC with 18 points at the break as the Rockets were double teaming Kevin Durant as much as possible.

The third quarter was back and forth as defense continued to be an afterthought. Both teams netted 30 points, but the key moment was at the end of the quarter, when Jeremy Lin stole the ball from Westbrook with just 3 seconds left. A quick pass to Harden, who dribbled once, stopped, took aim, and launched from behind the halfcourt stripe. It was a perfect shot, hitting nothing but net and sent the crowd into an uproar. Still the Rockets were down 92-87 with 12 minutes to go.

The final period began with three Houston turnovers and the Thunder used back-to-back threes to take a 107-93 lead with 7:11 to go. That was a convenient time for the Rockets to start their comeback as they went on a 15-4 run to move within three points, culminating with Lin sinking a running jumpshot (below).

When Durant missed a pull-up jumper on the next possession, Lin rebounded, passed to Harden who made a three pointer to tie the game and bring the fans to their feet. Without  calling a timeout, OKC went back down the floor and Westbrook was blocked by Harden. Back came the Rockets and a few passes later, Lin sunk an open three to make it 114-111 - a 17-point reversal in just over five minutes.

The Thunder called timeout but Durant missed on the subsequent possession and Harden made a 2-pointer at the other end for his 46th point of the night. Lin added another trey to clinch things as the Rockets won 122-119 in what was an amazing game. There were 61 three-point attempts (out of 179 FGA total) and 26 were made while the teams combined for 41 turnovers. Not a thing of beauty, but a game that kept the fans interested and ultimately happy at the end.


Durant had his second career triple-double but did not play well as the Houston defense prevented him from getting many open looks. He had 11 assists and 12 boards but missed some key shots during crunch time. The point being that triple-doubles are not necessarily meaningful.

The post-game show called the Harden-Lin combo Beardsanity. I don't know if this will catch on.

The Rockets had a display in the Sky Court with bios for each player. At halftime, with the trade having been announced, I ran back to take pictures of those who had been dispatched, but they had already covered up the info with Coming Soon posters. Impressive response time!

There was a moment of silence for Dr. Jerry Buss, the Lakers' owner who passed away on Monday. I was surprised that many people did not stand for this.

The staff at Toyota Center is very friendly. One guy stopped me and essentially commandeered my camera, taking a picture of me in front of the court. I rarely post pictures of myself here, but this one turned out pretty well.

Next Up

The trip is almost over with just three days left, all in the Dallas Metroplex. Today is the final basketball game as I visit the Super Pit, home of the North Texas Mean Green. Friday will be the Central Hockey League in Allen, and then I finish off with the TCU Horned Frogs hosting Cal State Fullerton in NCAA baseball on Saturday before heading off to New York. Check back daily for updates.



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